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IAS Prelims-2016: Some Reflections



There is a week to go before the much awaited prelims exam is conducted throughout the country for the coveted civil services examination. Despite being just a qualifying exam, in many ways,  prelims  is the main determinant of your final success in the civil services. This is for a number of reasons. First, lakhs of participants appear in prelims raising the level of competition very high. Out of 4-5 lakh candidates appearing for the prelims, only 15,000 or so will be qualified for the mains. This means a tough race among competent, hard working candidates. Every single mark will count. Secondly, the syllabus of prelims is amorphous in nature compared to the mains syllabus. By amorphous I mean there is no concrete syllabus to follow in a literal sense for prelims. What UPSC has stated as GS prelims syllabus is only indicative in nature. It has no strictly defined boundaries making it difficult to give it a systematic, definite shape. Thus one is left with the choice to define the syllabus in ones’ own way and pursue whatever appears relevant. Thirdly, the practice of combining IAS and IFoS exam together in recent years by UPSC has further compounded the problem. The needs of the two different exams have been attempted to be reconciled in a single exam which creates problems of balance in the  prelim exam. The composition of prelims for IAS exam has to be as per the needs of the service and aptitude required from a civil servant. The same holds true for the IFoS exam also. This means that there should be only few common questions for these two different examinations.

 Be that as it may, the basic point I am stressing here is that combining the prelims for IAS and IFos has its own ramifications for preparations. In order to accommodate the needs of IFoS, many questions are being asked now on environment and ecology as well as science sections. This is done by reducing questions on traditional areas of IAS syllabus such as history, polity, etc. This needs to be borne in mind while appearing at the prelims exam. Secondly, emphasis on current affairs has become more accentuated than before. Most of the questions now seek to evaluate a candidate’s awareness level about the important news reported in newspapers and other media.  Usually, last one year’s current affairs is  covered in the question paper. For Prelims -2016, news for one year would mean events between August 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016. But I must point out here that questions from even older date are also being asked nowadays. Say for example, something that was reported before August 2015 in the news e. g., an important conference, a natural disaster, a medical discovery etc, may also be asked. Therefore it will make more sense to look at some important events of 2014 and 2015 as well. The  most difficult aspect of current affairs is how a student can make sense of the news he is covering. Unless one is clear about all aspects of the current affairs based news, one may not know the correct answer. To cite an example,   everyone has read about South China Sea and Chinese claims of sovereignty over it. Even the recent judgement against China may be known to a candidate. But UPSC may not directly ask about South China Sea. Instead, it may ask about UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) because the problem of South China Sea has to be solved under UNCLOS framework. So you must know provisions of UNCLOS also. Similarly, India has become a member of SCO. One must try to know in this context the nature of this organization, its priorities, India’s gains from joining it etc. Just the news that India has become a member of SCO is not enough for the questions asked on it.

 What I am suggesting therefore is that a new perspective is needed to tackle current affairs in prelims because it is an important part of the exam. Having said this,   let me now  turn to some important aspects of the prelims exam scheduled next week ( AUGUST 07, 2016) that may prove handy to  the aspirants .

1. Revise extensively: Resist the tendency to read new things at this stage. Focus on revising. It is time to consolidate your last 5-6 months preparation. Unless you thoroughly revise what you have read, you may not recall them during exam. For revision, just look at the main points because there is no time for extensive study now.  A complete revision of traditional areas is better at this stage because it will give you some questions for sure if you take a second look at areas like history, polity, geography etc which form traditional parts of the syllabus. One subject should be revised in a day thoroughly.

2. Do not practice from test series at this stage: I have realized most of the test series available in market or online are quite confusing and full of errors.  Besides, they hardly match with the real questions asked. Therefore, it’s better to practice from last years’  GS questions asked in UPSC. Last 10 years’ questions will be sufficient to practice. Apart from UPSC   civil services questions, it will be wise to also solve other exams questions e.g. CAPF, SSC etc because    some of these questions may be repeated in this year’s prelims exam also.

3. Don’t ignore CSAT Part:  Although CSAT is just a qualifying exam now, yet, ignoring it may lead to disaster. Therefore, ensure that you will get the required qualifying marks in CSAT also. For this, just concentrate on your strong area in CSAT. Say for example, if your maths and reasoning parts  are weak, try to command the comprehension part. By the same logic, if your comprehension part is weak, then command maths and reasoning parts. This way, you can expect to score the required qualifying percentage in CSAT.  No need to command every aspect of CSAT at this stage.

4. Stress on those parts of the syllabus from where maximum questions are likely to be asked:  At this last stage, with just a week’s time at disposal, it is not desirable to look at each and every topic with equal importance. What is needed instead is a smart way of revising those areas from where more questions are being set. For example, in ancient India, art related questions are more. Similarly, in modern India, questions on freedom struggle i.e. period between 1885 and 1947 are more than the earlier part of British Rule. Therefore you should make a revision of this part and not the entire modern India at this stage. It is highly beneficial to readjust your preparations in this fashion as the exam approaches. Reading anything and everything will be counter productive at this stage.

 5. No new learning please:  May be there are still many topics remaining to be done . But it is not practical to do them at this last hour. Any new learning cannot be absorbed so fast. Therefore, be realistic and do not spread out your studies on horizontal basis at this juncture. Rather, you should go for vertical mode of preparation now i.e. to consolidate what you have already read. In other words, do not expand, just consolidate.

6. Make intelligent guesses: Prelims exam carries negative marking. This is perceived wrongly to mean that unless you are 100% sure about an answer, do not attempt it. If one follows this perception, many questions are bound to be left out and low scoring is assured. Instead of this, a more realistic way of raising your score is to make intelligent guesses.  Suppose you know about half of the options given in the question, but you are not sure about the rest half of the options, then take a chance and make an intelligent guess about the right choice. Without taking such chances, your score will not go up. But at the same time, never go for blind options. If you are absolutely blank about the answer, then just quit it, do not attempt it.

7. Don’t get into a time trap: Not all the questions are designed to consume same amount of time, though they carry same marks. It is therefore simple to understand that by wasting too much time in trying to solve a particular question is detrimental as you will not get enough time to solve other questions which might be less time consuming.  The obvious thing to know here is that if you realize that a question is likely to consume too much time, don’t get tempted, it will trap you for quite a while. Move over to the next question. This way finish the entire set of the questions fast and leave out the more complex ones. If you manage to save some spare time, then quickly go back to those complex questions and then attempt them.

8. Health is more important than studies at this stage: The weather in most parts of India at this point of time is unfriendly and inclement. All kinds of diseases surface suddenly in these months. It is absolutely essential that you go to the examination hall as a healthy person so that you take the exam in the right frame of mind. Do take very good care of your health.

9. Stop studying just before the exam: it’s mistakenly believed that last moment studies help. They don’t. If you could not study something when you had enough time, you cannot do it at the last moment. It will only stress your mind and affect your performance. Go to the exam hall without any such stress. Close books the night before the exam and no need to carry it to the exam hall.  A relaxed mind is more useful than a few bits of last minute information.

 To conclude, I would say that it is time now to slow down the pace rather than making it frantic. One last advice, if you get to know how much marks you will score in the prelims, start your mains preparations within a week’s time. Do not wait for the prelims results. There is a huge   mains syllabus awaiting you!

 Wish you hard work, luck and success.


 (S. B. Singh is a noted academician and IAS mentor. He can be reached at his mail: